Law in the Internet Society

The Failure of Digital Contact Tracing during COVID-19

-- By YanisAliouche - 13 Oct 2023

The COVID-19 epidemic represented a massive shift in governments and populations reliance towards technology in order to ensure the continuation of work, education, and communications amidst the health crisis. The question thus arose as to whether the development of new digital platforms could help combat the ever-developing epidemic. Governments put this to the test through the implementation of digital contact-tracing apps. This essay aims to address how the faith of governments in digital contract tracing was misplaced combatting the spread of the virus, and instead provided a venue for empowering surveillance capitalism and fragilizing democratic principles.

The Failure of DCT in combatting the epidemic

Contact tracing apps had too many flaws and inefficiencies to be useful in combatting the virus. Firstly, app developers witnessed the difficulty of coordination within governments, as they were sent from office to office in different administrative departments to obtain adequate permissions, thus causing delays in the release of the apps. Rushed releases led to numerous issues: Norway’s Smittestopp app was swiftly shut down as "the risks of intensified surveillance outweighed the app’s as of yet unproven public health benefits” . In India, the app was found that it was able to leak users’ precise locations. This approach of releasing apps and refining them later eroded peoples’ trust in their government, a crucial component in the pandemic fight.

The apps functioned through BlueTooth? and GPS, which posed significant challenges: systems didn’t know about surrounding circumstances, such as whether individuals were wearing masks, or if they were separated by a wall… Additionally, a study on Bluetooth contact tracing revealed highlight inaccurate distance measurements on a tram, resulting in 50% false positive and false negative rate.

This technology was meant to accompany traditional tracing methods and public health practices, not replace them. Yet Governments chose to advertise them as “digital vaccines” and a “road to recovery”. In Norway, the Prime Minister assured that “if many people download the Smittestopp app, we can open up society more and get our freedom back”. We knew this was wrong at the time, and it remains untrue today.

Why invest in this technology?

There are winners in the failure of digital contact tracing: tech companies, and in some ways, governments themselves.

Big Tech, hero of crises?

Former Google CEO Eric Smidt announced the pandemic would make people “grateful” for Big Tech. Global crises such as the pandemic present pivotal moments for tech companies to collect new information from us, translate it to data and capitalize on it. Google had always wanted to take ahold of health data – the pandemic presented itself as the perfect opportunity. Shoshana Zuboff notes that “while it is a crisis for all of us, it is something like business as usual for surveillance capitalists, in the sense that it is an opportunity to, possibly, significantly enhance their behavioral data supply chains” .

In the aftermath of 9/11, tech companies were new – they portrayed their surveillance and privacy-exception tactics as an exception and dressed themselves up as heroes during a time of fear. Populations did not know what exactly the companies were up to with their information, and in their fear trusted these entities. 20 years later these same companies have grown into empires due to the data they’ve accumulated, claiming as their own even if it was never supposed to be theirs to begin with, and selling it to interested ears.

Empty promises

Circumstances have thus changed, and so the image of heroism had to transform for BigTech? to appease public concerns and continue to assert and expand their data-driven dominance during the pandemic. To do so, Apple, Google and other companies promised that their technology safeguarded privacy and would be temporary measures, the information solely used for combating the pandemic. Can we trust them? Of course not. The great lack of regulatory framework makes it so that we can only rely on their self-regulation, and hope the companies stay true to their word. But we know all too well how that goes. When Facebook had bought WhatsApp? , it promised it would stay its own separate company. Oops.

During the pandemic, companies’ actions hint at empty promises. Lobbyists had legislators in California agree to delay implementing new privacy laws under pretext of the pandemic. Research from digital security firm Surfshark reveals that 60% of contact-tracing apps are vague about their tracking methods, lack transparent terms and conditions and use intrusive methods such as surveillance camera footage, to keep tabs on users.

Government partnership

Private companies are not bound by the same constitutional provisions as governments – they don’t have to act in public interest, and there is little regulatory framework. Governments collaborating with tech companies helps solidify their surveillance systems and begin to bypass their democratic systems. In the UK, the NHS had announced a deal with private technology companies to combine and cross-reference data and data partners hold – both the NHS and private companies thus have a large array of new data they have access to. Matt Hancock signed legal backing for the NHS to set aside its duty of confidentiality in data sharing agreements.

What worked? The future we need

The focus on the development of these apps should have been redirected on more efficient means of combatting the epidemic, notably sticking to what governments know best: traditional public health methods: manual contact tracing helped identify the spread of the virus more concisely by directly identifying individuals and their recent contacts and settings. Investment in infrastructures where personnel and equipment were lacking – there was a need for more hospital beds, COVID tests, masks… In combatting COVID-19, the public traditionally places their trust in their government to do the right thing. Professionals are bound to scientific and professional norms. Public sector operations to protect health are to be done solely for public interest. These spy-apps were allowed to exist due to the lack of regulatory framework for the benefit of surveillance capitalism all while hindering democratic principles.


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r5 - 18 Jan 2024 - 17:26:55 - YanisAliouche
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